VIEWPOINT: BUCKLEY RETURN, MCQUILLEN DEATH PROVE PUBLISHING IS ABOUT PEOPLE

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Never forget that this business is about people. People like K-III's Harry McQuillen and Susan Buckley.

More about Harry, who killed himself at his home in Darien at age 51, but first, the story of Susan Buckley, publisher of American Health For Women.

What happens when you do a complete make-over of a magazine, down to changing its name, and less than three months later the architect of the makeover and the executive responsible for seeing that it succeeds, is seriously injured in an accident and knocked out of action for months?

If you're the Reader's Digest Association (it owns American Health), you hang in there with the people you've got in place and hope to hell your publisher recovers, walks again and comes back to work. I had lunch the other day at the Four Seasons in Manhattan with Ms. Buckley and I can report she's back and walking ("I wore high heels today for the first time, in your honor," she assured me blithely, knowing I am a sucker for such blarney) and running a good magazine that seems to be up and growing (they'll go from 900,000 to a million on their rate base in January and for this year to date both ad revenue and number of pages are substantially ahead).

Here's what happened to Susan. And to the magazine.

She'd been ad director of Memories (remember?) where she worked with Greg Coleman, these days VP-general manager of all Reader's Digest magazines in the U.S. Her next career stop was as publisher of Woman's Day Special Interest Publications. Then as publisher of Hachette Custom Publishing. She took over at American Health a couple of years ago and oversaw the makeover into "The Power Book for Women," and about which their ads have a reader declaring, "I finally found a health magazine that doesn't treat me like one of the boys."

That makeover with its new ad campaign and slogans and title kicked in last Oct. 26.

On Jan. 15 of this year, about 8 in the evening, Susan was out power-walking and crossing Mad-ison Avenue at 72nd Street, near her apartment, when she was hit by a car.

"They took me to Beth Israel Hospital North. I was in pain but not out. I was there about five hours, and they said I had a serious injury to my leg. They called an orthopedic surgeon who said, `Fine, put her in a cast and I'll see her in the morning.' I got a big bouquet from Greg that read, `We can run it without you for a while.'

"I worked from the apartment after that once they released me from the hospital. I was on the phone, I was having meetings. We're all indispensable, right? I was convinced that the magazine wouldn't run without me. I tried to come back to the office Feb. 18. It didn't work; I couldn't do it. I dropped out again and on March 5 I went to Florida, to my daughter."

But who really did run things when she was hospitalized and away recuperating? How did they keep the damned thing afloat?

"Susan Baron, my group publisher. And Robyn Borok, the ad director. They kept it going. All the execs were absolutely supportive."

Now she's back and walking. How's the pain? A little better every day? "No, not every day. But every week. It goes by weeks, feeling better."

And the biz? Well, the September issue (American Health comes out 10 times a year) will be their biggest ever with 64 ad pages and for the year to date the book is ahead of last year's (pre-makeover) pace with 363 ad pages (up 12%) and revenues of $13.5 million (a 17% gain).

What can anyone say about Harry A. McQuillen III?

I don't recall how it was we first got together, but we used to go to the Cote Basque for lunch every so often and get one of the good banquettes and drink some wine and have a wonderful meal and sit there and talk. Just talk. A lot about books; he loved books. He was a big guy, tall and packing a few pounds more than necessary (lunches at the Cote Basque have a way of doing that to a man), and he was totally candid about the fact his background wasn't magazines but books, and there was plenty about magazine publishing he didn't know. But as smart as Harry was, you suspected he was learning.

There was nothing tormented about him; he was just big and easy and caring. A quietly jovial chap who enjoyed food and wine and conversation. Bill Reilly and Janice Grossman and the others over there at K-III have lost something irreplaceable. And when I first heard the news Harry had been found dead at home, and only 51, I thought it must be cardiac. That's how we leap stupidly to conclusions. Next morning when I read in the Times that he'd shot himself, I literally shook my head in anger and disbelief. No, no, that couldn't be. There had to be a mistake. Guys like Harry don't off themselves; except that he did.

Wherever it is we go, wherever Harry McQuillen is, I hope he's found peace.

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